Writing Latinx Environmentalisms

This week in North Philly Notes, Sarah D. Wald, David Vázquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and Sarah Jaquette Ray, co-editors of Latinx Environmentalisms, tell “A Story of Inspiration and Acompañamiento.”

Latinx Environmentalisms is a collection of original essays and original interviews that explores the challenges and possibilities of bringing the environmental humanities and Latinx* studies together. The collection seeks to account for the variety of ways in which Latinx cultures are often (although certainly not always) environmental, but hardly ever identify as environmentalist. In this book, we argue that Latinx art, literature, film, and other forms of creative productions redefine and broaden what counts as environmentalism, even as they sometimes reject the term entirely. Part of how Latinx artists redefine these terms is by pointing out the racism inherent in some of the assumptions of environmentalism. We argue that Latinx art, literature, film, and other creative works hold the potential to make visible key aspects of the exploitation of the Earth, and in particular the ways in which colonization and capitalism exacerbate it. Latinx creative works often offer deep and significant insights about environmental issues, environmental ethics, and the intertwining of environmental ills with the social ills of racism, capitalism, and colonialism.

Latinx Environmentalisms_smAlthough the book seeks to build new bridges in environmental humanities and Latinx studies scholarship, it is just as much a story of building collegial and friendship bridges between the editors and contributors. In this post,we share how the book is also a story of collaboration, of how academic life looks and feels behind the pages of our scholarly products. We might even say that we offer this collection as a product of “acompañamiento.” Anthropologist Mariela Nuñez-Janes describes the concept as a process of creating networks of support and solidarity in a way that extends notions of kinship.

The story of this collaboration begins at a couple of different conferences in 2013: both the First Biennial Latina/o Literary Theory and Criticism conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) held at the University of Kansas. The four of us had known and admired each other for some time. We met to discuss the idea of producing an edited volume together. Although each of us knew about pockets of environmental humanities work that considered Latinx literature and culture, and a very tiny group of Latinx studies scholars who thought about the environment, we kept talking about how much there was to say about literary authors such as Helena Maria Viramontes, Ana Castillo, Cherrie Moraga, and Gloria Anzaldua, visual artists such as Ester Hernandez, and filmmakers such as Alex Rivera. Our initial conversations got us to realize that there was a huge and largely untapped archive of material that had unique things to say about the environment.

We also realized that there was a growing body of scholarship in Latinx studies that was already doing some of this work. Scholars such as Kamala Platt and María Herrera-Sobek had pioneered thinking about environmental themes in Chicana/o/x literature. Social scientists Laura Pulido and Devon Peña were also early leaders in thinking about Chicana/o/x environmentalisms, as was Robert Melchior Figueroa in the discipline of philosophy. We looked to some of our contributors, such as Randy Ontiveros, Gabriela Nuñez, and Jennifer García Peacock who identified their work as environmental, and others such as Paula Moya and Richard T. Rodríguez, who didn’t identify as doing environmental work, but who were clearly engaging with important ecocritical concepts.

Our question then became: how do we put these people into conversation with one another in order to highlight the innovative environmental thinking they identified in their works? 

Our collaboration was aided by some key developments in our individual scholarship. Priscilla wrapped up her book project, Writing the Goodlife (Arizona UP, 2016), which made an important intervention in how Chicanx/Mexican American cultural production is treated in the environmental field. Rather than focusing on texts where mainstream environmental ideas appear in Mexican American writing, Writing the Goodlife asks us to redefine “environmental” to see long-standing traditions, identities, cultural sensibilities, and forms of resistance as environmental, and to interrogate the exclusion of these expressions in the mainstream environmental canon.

Sarah D. Wald’s book, The Nature of California (Washington, 2016), was also just coming out. In it, she examined the ways writings of Japanese American, Filipino, and Mexican American farmers and farmworkers contested their exclusion from national identity through depictions of nature and land. Like Priscilla, she was redefining where and how we look for environmental ideas and what environmentalism may entail.

David, too, was realizing that much of his interest in urban literary expression and Latinx identity had environmental resonance, but only if we redefined what that meant– not only “wilderness” but also a sense of space, negotiations of ecological costs and benefits, etc.. David became particularly interested in how some communities bring a keen sense of “environment” to how they inhabit places, particularly in laying claim to cultural ownership over urban neighborhoods like New York’s Spanish Harlem.

And Sarah Jaquette Ray’s research in The Ecological Other (Arizona UP, 2013) on how environmental discourse can define immigrants as threats to American national security vis-a-vis its borderland ecosystems also situated her work as pushing this intersection.

All told, the four of us found each other through this research on Latinx environmentalisms, which kept landing us in the same places, such as the John Jay Latinx Literary Theory and Criticism Conference, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Executive Council meetings (on which Priscilla and Sarah W. both served as Diversity Officers, Sarah R. served as Vice President, and Sarah R. and Priscilla as executive council members), the American Studies Association conferences, the Latino Studies Association conferences, and David and Sarah W’s home institution, the University of Oregon, having conversations about where the field might go, and laying the groundwork for working together.

We are so grateful to these conferences and professional organizations for providing the infrastructure for us to have these early exploratory conversations.

In other settings– especially in our classrooms, communities, and committees– we sensed a great interest in this intersection of Latinx and environmental concerns, but knew there was a dearth of scholarship on it. We were particularly struck by the enthusiasm our students shared with us. For example, in David’s courses on Latinx Sci-Fi and Environmental Thinking and Sarah W’s Environmental Humanities 203 courses at the University of Oregon, students were wildly enthusiastic about analyzing canonical authors like Leopold and Thoreau through lenses of race and ethnicity, as well as reading authors that had not been in the environmental canon through environmental lenses, such as Viramontes and Castillo. Both of the Sarahs and Priscilla led a 2015 ASLE workshop on Latinx Environmental Pedagogies, which reinforced our sense that students were pushing these boundaries.

We landed on the notion of “recovery” as a correction to the “diversity” approach of second-wave environmental literary criticism–which just adds more seats to the environmental table without challenging the very structure of the table –and had lots of ideas about how our project might take up these questions. Early in the process we recognized that some of the most sophisticated analysis of Latinx environmentalisms occurred within the fiction, non-fiction, and poetry of Latinx writers, especially among those writers who identified as Chicana feminists. This led us to talk directly to many of the Latinx authors whose work was foundational to our own inspiration.  Even more gratifying was the reception we got from scholars whose work was already pushing these fields in exciting directions. Quite simply they started to come out of the woodwork as we were beginning these conversations. That’s how the project started. Many of the insights in our Introduction to the book came from the various conversations that we had at conferences in our field and on panels with our contributors.

What is not obvious is how a project like this builds over time–in our case, five years of working together– and the details of collaboration. We learned how to step up and step back based on our strengths and weaknesses, and filled in for each other when our personal lives became distracting; we learned how scholarship never happens without tragedy, celebration, frustration, generosity, heartbreak, and mundane intrusions (like sick pets and home maintenance issues) on the intellectual process.

We met several times as a group to just sit in silence and write together. We became more acquainted with Google Docs and Dropbox than we ever thought possible. We spent what amounts to about 50 hours together on four-way Skype conference calls, watching each other’s lives carry on in the background– children growing up, family members moving in and out, seasons and health issues coming and going, the material realities of life moving through different places and stages.

The boundaries between our academic, friendship, and personal lives became increasingly blurred, and each editor would probably say that the book is a reflection of both collegial synergy and personal friendship. The work of pulling something like this together is both dramatic and unglamorous, intellectual and material, urgent and slow. To us, the process has been as illuminating as the product.

It is a true honor to share this book with audiences that are interested in not only these topics, but also the story of what academic life is about, what it means to produce scholarship in collaboration with others, and the thrills and concerns of pushing the boundaries of our disciplines.

Less than mapping these intersections, our hope is that the book opens a door for more thinking and more imagining of what could be. We want to lift voices, but also to scrutinize the liberating, and also oppressive, cultural work of environmental discourse. We continue to think about these issues, but also want to push it further to ask, for example, what implications do these conversations have for the other work we do at our institutions, such as our work with students and our efforts to create structures of inclusion and equity? 

We hope that others will not only carry this project in ever more diverse directions, but also be moved to embark on a similar kind of collaboration, where intellectual and personal worlds merge, and both are profoundly changed in the process.


*A note on terminology: We define Latinx studies as the comparative study of race, identity, and culture in U.S. communities with roots in Latin America (for example, Puerto Rican, Mexican American, or Central American communities). We use the term Latinx as a gender-neutral alternative to Latina or Latino in solidarity with LGBTQ+ communities. We also use the “x” to mark the indigenous peoples and knowledges that we will never know due to the conquest of the Americas. We also note that in using the term Latinx, we are deliberately operating from a comparative, interethnic perspective. What this means is that the essays and interviews we include focus on multiple Latin American-origin communities in the U.S. (Mexican American and Dominican American, for example), and that we compare and contrast the environmental ideas that emerge from these disparate communities. 

 

Sequestrada: A New Film by a Temple University Press author Sabrina McCormick

This week in North Philly Notes, Sabrina McCormick, author of Mobilizing Science, promotes the Sequestrada, the film she co-wrote and co-directed with Soopum Sohn, about the devastation of the Brazilian Amazon. Based in part on her research about the anti-dam movement in Brazil—the subject of Mobilizing ScienceSequestrada stars Tim Blake Nelson and Gretchen Mol. The film opens November 15 at the Village East Cinema in New York, followed by a VOD Release on Tuesday, December 17.

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Synopsis:

Sequestrada follows Kamodjara and her father, Cristiano, members of the Arara, an Amazonian indigenous tribe. When they leave their reservation to protest a dam that will displace their people, Kamodjara is separated from her family and kidnapped by traffickers.

Roberto, an indigenous agency bureaucrat overseeing a report that could change everything, is under pressure to support the dam’s construction. Thomas, an American investor in the dam, makes his way to Brazil to sway Roberto’s opinion. The film tells the story of how these three lives intertwine against a backdrop of geopolitics and environmental disaster.

Sequestrada was shot on location in Brazil and is based on the real-life event of the construction of the Belo Monte Dam, which is displacing the Arara—who have lived along the Amazon River for countless generations. The film, which had its world premiere at the Beijing Film Festival last April, deftly incorporates the experiences of local non-professional actors to tell a gripping local story of global consequences.

Artist’s Statement:

Sabrina had been doing research in Brazil for fifteen years and had made her first documentary about people displaced by large dams. She had received funding to go to the Amazon where the world’s third largest dam was being built and contested by indigenous groups who were illegally affected. We mapped out a plot. Sabrina had worked with organizations contesting dams for a long time and we planned to meet with a few of them based near Belo Monte to find out more of what the past thirty years had been like, beginning with Sting protesting the dam and a Kayapo woman slashing a government official in 1984.

Then we left for Altamira, ourselves. The last plane to the Amazon was full of men. Sabrina and a flight attendant were the only women. The men were all workers going to the Belo Monte Dam. When it landed in Altamira and the doors opened, we felt the sauna of the Amazon.

Altamira is a small town where indigenous tribes visit to buy flip flops, t-shirts, and supermarket junk food. We approached a group that we learned were Arara. We spent about three days to see if they wanted to be on camera. Then the whole Arara tribe disappeared. They re-appeared with a huge bag of live turtles. They invited Sabrina to sit in the local indigenous housing and eat a turtle they had just cooked. Then they started to open up. We learned they have a system where a chief (cacique) decides everything, so we mainly tried to speak to him. He was a quiet, young man. Later, we found he had only been cacique for one year. There was another man with thick glasses, who had been watching us. We talked to him. It turned out that he had been the chief for many years before this young man.

When he decided we were not dangerous, he stopped being a quiet man. We created a character for him so he could speak about the Arara tribe and the Belo Monte dam. The last day of the shoot, he asked Soopum if he could try his hat. He wore Soopum’s hat and was silent for long time, smiling. He seemed proud and happy. But it was Soopum’s only hat and the Equator sun made Soopum’s black hair so hot, that he really needed the hat. Sabrina didn’t want to give up her hat, either. Soopum politely asked for the hat back. He and tribe members thanked us making this film. We hugged the Arara and parted ways.

Sabrina guided the storyline exploring how government corruption undergirded the illegal construction of massive infrastructure, damaging lives and releasing methane from the degradation of flora and fauna. Soopum added fictional plot lines with traditional film language under given location and situations. Together, they captured true moments with the actors when they were living normally. We wrote together based on footage and the tribe members writing with us such that each character’s life and the fictional plot became interwoven. We constructed scenes with them, explaining where we thought the storyline was going and recording their reactions, modifying the plot with their perspectives and lines from their personal experiences.

With that approach, we fused real and imagined worlds in multiple layers, the real effects the dam has on climate change and the lives of indigenous people who live nearby, along with a narrative of imagined characters who reflect the stories of how Belo Monte came to be what it is today.

About Sabrina McCormick’s book, Mobilizing Science

Moblizing Science sm compMobilizing Science theoretically and empirically explores the rise of a new kind of social movement—one that attempts to empower citizens through the use of expert scientific research. Sabrina McCormick advances theories of social movements, development, and science and technology studies by examining how these fields intersect in cases around the globe.

McCormick grounds her argument in two very different case studies: the anti-dam movement in Brazil and the environmental breast cancer prevention movement in the U.S. These, and many other cases, show that the scientization of society, where expert knowledge is inculcated in multiple institutions and lay people are marginalized, give rise to these new types of movements. While activists who consequently engage in science often instigate new methods that result in new findings and scientific tools, these movements still often fail due to superficial participatory institutions and tightly knit corporate/government relationships.

University Press Week Blog Tour: How to build community

It’s University Press Week and the Blog Tour is back! This year’s theme is Read. Think. Act. Today’s theme is: How to build community

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Paul Farber and Ken Lum, co-editors of our new book Monument Lab penned this entry on community building.

From coeditor Paul Farber:

Monument Lab_CMYK_090319_smWhen we started Monument Lab, it was not a fully-realized curatorial project or interventionit was a classroom experiment. Ken and I were teaching in Fine Arts and Urban Studies, respectively, and were galvanized by our conversations with our students about representation, equity, and memory. We each spent time with scholarly texts and we also moved outside of our classes into public spaces as their own primary sources. We met one another, and connected with a circle of collaborators after that expanded what we could have ever dreamed of on our own. We iterated and took our questions outside to the courtyard of City Hall in 2015 for our first discovery phase exhibition. We eventually that moved to public squares and parks around the city for the citywide project with Mural Arts Philadelphia documented in the book, and now work in other cities with similar goals of critically engaging monuments we have inherited and unearthing the next generation of monuments.

We have been fortunate to work with a range of artists, writers, and organizers*. Some have artworks and essays represented in this book. Others put fingerprints and directed their own forms of expertise to the project to make this possible. We hope people will read the essays, but we hope people also tend to the captions, credits, and thank you’s, as they give insights into how monuments could be and are made, critiqued, and re-imagined. This was a profoundly collaborative effort and that is the point.

There is no single fix to our monumental landscape. There are ways of engaging the moment worth nodding to by many people representing previously exisiting and ongoing approaches. This includes antiracist, decolonial, feminist, queer, ecological, and other systems of social justice perspectives that take long first steps toward redress. These practitioners understand we live at once in the deep seated past, changing present, and unknowable future. The book and the work of Monument Lab is meant to document collective aspirations for art and justice and serve an active, living approach to history.

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Enter Karyn Olivier, The Battle is Joined, Monument Lab 2017 (Steve Weinik/Mural Arts Philadelphia)

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Sharon Hayes, If They Should Ask, Monument Lab 2017 (Steve Weinik/Mural Arts Philadelphia)

From editor Ken Lum

I just received Deborah Thomas’ book Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, WitnessingRepair. She is an esteemed colleague at Penn and we both co-taught a course in Kingston, Jamaica that looks at a major violent incursion that took place in the impoverished neighborhood of Tivoli Gardens in 2010. From this moment of eruption, there followed an uneven and halting pattern of attempts at recognition, redress and reconciliation for the many human lives affected, and continues to affect, by the incursion. Although a different context, as I started reading this book, it made me think about Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia, the new book from Temple University Press that Paul Farber and I edited. 

There are many sites all over the world, even sites within sites, such as neighborhoods within neighborhoods or streets within streets, whereby were they truly examined in a holistically democratic and critical sense, would reveal many of the same flailing patterns that stymies institutional and official initiatives that attempt to confront issues of human trauma and under-recognition. I started thinking about how Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia is not just a book but also a method of thinking about matters of address and redress that offers no presaged prescription or anticipated conclusion. What Monument Lab offers is a way of thinking about the world in as open a manner as possible. Monument Lab is a project of inclusion including the real inclusion of Philadelphia’s many unheard voices. Monument Lab recognizes the untapped wisdom of the unacknowledged peoples and the truths that they offer. Monument Lab is a means rather than an end, but one that produces hope in the coming together of voices. 

Monument Lab draws on visual art, oral histories, scholarship and subjugated knowledges—there is no one knowledge that takes precedence over another. It is this openness in both thinking and method that accounts for whatever success Monument Labhas been able to achieve.


*Contributors: Alexander Alberro, Alliyah Allen, Laurie Allen, Andrew Friedman, Justin Geller, Kristen Giannantonio, Jane Golden, Aviva Kapust, Fariah Khan, Homay King, Stephanie Mach, Trapeta B. Mayson, Nathaniel Popkin, Ursula Rucker, Jodi Throckmorton, Salamishah Tillet, Jennifer Harford Vargas, Naomi Waltham-Smith, Bethany Wiggin, Mariam I. Williams, Leslie Willis-Lowry, and the editors 

Artists: Tania Bruguera, Mel Chin, Kara Crombie, Tyree Guyton, Hans Haacke, David Hartt, Sharon Hayes, King Britt and Joshua Mays, Klip Collective, Duane Linklater, Emeka Ogboh, Karyn Olivier, Michelle Angela Ortiz, Kaitlin Pomerantz, RAIR, Alexander Rosenberg, Jamel Shabazz, Hank Willis Thomas, Shira Walinsky and Southeast by Southeast, and Marisa Williamson

Celebrating Banned Books Week

In honor of Banned Books Week, North Philly Notes posts an excerpt from Ganzeer’s entry, Charlie and the Aliens, from Who Will Speak for America?, edited by Stephanie Feldman and Nathaniel Popkin.


Who will speak for America? Barbara Jordan asked this question in her historic address to the 1976 Democratic National Convention. In the wake of Donald Trump’s first year in office, we posed this same question to over 40 essayists, poets, fiction writers, and artists. Like Barbara Jordan, we wanted to know who would have the courage and dedication to speak for American values. 

Our contributors reminded us that the true question was—perhaps, has always been—who will be allowed to speak for America. Banned Books Week emphasizes this ongoing, central fight. There are forces that would prevent us from sharing our stories, expressing our experiences, raising our voices. We must speak, nonetheless, and advocate for those whom the powerful would silence.

This excerpt comes from Ganzeer, whose protest murals were removed by the Egyptian government during the 2011 revolution.Stephanie Feldman, co-editor of Who Will Speak for America? 


Who WIll Speak for America revised_030818_smWhen I was first invited by Nathaniel Popkin⁠—one of the two masterful editors of Who Will Speak for America?—to submit something for inclusion in the book, I thought to myself: Okay, Ganzeer, this is your chance to write a serious scholarly piece for a serious scholarly book! And when I sat down to write the thing, that was in all seriousness my very serious intention. Yet, what came out was something else entirely.

I suppose the reason for this is… well, it’s really hard to write seriously about something that to you seems so obviously absurd. And let’s be clear; things are tremendously absurd right now. From the rhetoric surrounding the migration of human beings within our planet Earth, to the levels of incarceration in American prisons, to the continued prevalence of racial stereotypes, and the ridiculous myths of “American ideals.” It is all quite frankly very, very dumb.

So I found myself writing about it all through the lens of an absurd science fiction story about a 3-eyed alien named Charlie and his arrival to an Earth only scarcely populated by human beings.

I honestly didn’t think Nathaniel or Stephanie would want to include it, that its tone would be too, uh, absurd to include in their very serious academic tome meant to get at the heart of the American question. But much to my surprise I was wrong.

But y’know what? It’s one of the very few times I was elated to be wrong! Not for my own sake, but for the sake of academic publishing, for the sake science fiction, and for the sake of America!


An Excerpt from Charlie and the Aliens by Ganzeer

When it was my turn, I took a step toward the counter. The clerk raised his hand in a gesture that suggested I shouldn’t and then pointed to the kid standing behind me to step forward instead. And that’s exactly what the smug little brat did. He just marched on over without the slightest bit of hesitation.You might find it surprising that this memory is coming to me now as I sit in a cold, dark jail cell on the Moon with three other inmates, sharing stories about how we ended up here. Like campers around a campfire sharing ghost stories, except all the stories are supposedly true, and the thing we’re gathered around is not a fire but a shared sense of camaraderie. Much like a campfire, it’s this camaraderie that gives us a sense of security.When you first set foot in prison, you assume that everyone there must be bad, real bad. That no one there is anything like you. Which contradicts a popular saying we have on my home planet, Capulanos: “If to prison you are sent, then for sure you are innocent.”

I used to think it was just that: a saying, a proverb. It might’ve been true a very long time ago, when the justice system was anything but just. Or maybe it happened to catch on because it rhymes, and our brains are weak, easily malleable things incapable of standing firm against the irresistible power of the jingle. That may be one of the reasons I fell for Earth, a planet that boasts a great many jingles. Of note is:

     Proud to be an Earthling
     Where life is grand and free
     The entire cosmos is burning
     But here in peace we be
     O the wealth we are earning
     For our eternal shopping spree

In any case, the testimony of two of these fellas—a Menos-Earthling and an Aradis-Earthling—leads me to believe that there may be some truth to that Capulanos proverb after all. Both have ended up here by way of completely convoluted circumstances. The third inmate has yet to speak, but he’s the one I’m most excited to hear from because—dig this—he’s Human. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a Human Being before, despite having lived on Earth for several years.

Figure 5.3 Ganzeer - Starscone BoyBefore Earth, I lived on Capulanos, where I was born. And it was there on Capulanos, when I was still a child, that I walked into Ziggy’s Starscone Store—steps away from getting the most succulent, luscious starscone you could ever dream of—and got my first taste of discrimination. The clerk gave this fat little punk-ass foreigner preferential treatment. Not only did he ask him to step forward when it wasn’t yet his turn, but he covered the kid’s starscone in a thick blanket of Magic Sparkles. Without charging him! I saw it with my own three eyes. The kid then walked out of the store to reunite with his parents, obviously tourists. They had scaly skin and metallic accessories most peculiar in design, and the mother was lavishly overdressed. These weren’t just any tourists: they were from the wealthiest planet in the galaxy, Earth. (But not Human, mind you. I’ll get to that later.)

The clerk, less giddy than he was a second ago, asked me, “Whaddya want, kid?” and when I told him, he gave me exactly what I wanted but with very little interest. He lacked a certain oomph in his manners, which I wouldn’t have noticed had he not been on top of the world to serve the kid who had just preceded me. The kid who most certainly should not have preceded me. When I asked the clerk if I could get a topping of Magic Sparkles, only then did he smile, but it was more of a smirk. He told me it would cost extra. With utmost entitlement and a bloated chest, I pointed out that the other kid had just gotten Magic Sparkles for free. A most unpleasant laugh escaped him, and he proceeded to lecture me on the importance of hospitality toward foreigners. I couldn’t understand why I was being treated as an inferior species on my own planet! And then I wondered: If I were to visit Earth, would I get better treatment than the locals? I couldn’t help myself from staring at the foreign kid and his parents. The kid sinking his teeth into that thick layer of Magic Sparkles while his parents shooed away a couple of locals asking for money. Granted, beggars can be a little pesky, but those kids could have obviously done with a little more meat on their bones.

But more than the local beggars or the parents, I was focused on the kid and his starscone. He noticed. And I’m almost certain that what he saw was a boy glaring back at him with far more hate than the situation called for. Yet the foreign kid’s reaction to this was quite bizarre. After barely a femtosecond of surprise, he smiled. The little punk smiled because he knew. He knew he was a privileged little brat and liked it. He took pleasure in it. For the first time in my life, I felt this sensation: a bulge in my throat accompanied by a cardinal spark of rage. A combination that I can describe only as the thirst for vengeance. To this day, the sweet aroma of fresh starscone brings back feelings of revenge.

The opposite is also true: a thirst for vengeance always brings to mind the smell of fresh starscone. Which is why, sitting here in this murky, bonechilling jail cell about to recall the story of my incarceration, I find myself remembering this childhood incident at Ziggy’s Starscone Store. Because, let me tell you, right now, at this moment, I’m feeling mighty vengeful.

Highlighting the groundbreaking roles played by Anna May Wong

This week in North Philly Notes, Shirley Jennifer Lim, author of Anna May Wong, explains what prompted her to investigate the career of the important twentieth-century performer whose work shaped racial modernity.

I first witnessed the acting grace of the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong in the 1939 movie, King of Chinatown. In the opening scene she puts down her surgical implements and takes off her cap and mask after a successful emergency room operation.  King of Chinatown underscores Wong’s character, Dr. Mary Ling’s, professional competence for immediately after the surgery, the (San Francisco) Bay Area hospital director offers her the position of resident surgeon. In melodious tones tinged with an upper-class British accent, Wong firmly but politely declines the prestigious appointment because she wishes to raise money to bring medical supplies to China to combat the Japanese invasion. Flashing her trademark smile, Wong gracefully strides across the room, Edith Head-designed skirt and blouse highlighting her all-American modern professionalism. Based on a real life Chinese American woman, Dr. Margaret Chung, Wong’s role represents a modern American woman who is proud of her Chinese heritage.

Before I viewed the film, I knew that the scant scholarship’s dominant storyline focused on Wong as a marginal and exploited actress. According to that narrative, she had mostly played “foreign” and/or “negative” stereotypical roles such as prostitutes or dancers, who often died at the end of each film. Startled at how King of Chinatown proved that viewpoint wildly inaccurate, I decided that Wong’s career merited further investigation.

Anna May Wong_smIn my book, Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern, I focus on Wong because she embodied the dominant image of Chinese and “oriental” women between 1922 and 1940. She played groundbreaking roles in American, European, and Australian theater and cinema to become one of the major global actresses of Asian descent between the world wars. Born near Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1905, Wong made more than sixty films that circulated around the world, headlined theater and vaudeville productions in locations ranging from Sydney to Paris to New York, and, in 1951, had her own television series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, produced by the now defunct DuMont Television Network. The sheer number of films, theatrical productions, magazine covers, and iconic photographs rendered Wong ubiquitous. Global cultural and political interest in the “Orient” propelled her fame in locales such as Germany and Mozambique. Although she is no longer a household name, I argue that Wong remains an important twentieth-century performer because her work shaped racial modernity.

As an Asian American, there was nothing authentically “oriental” about the very American Wong, who, until 1936, had never been to China. Yet decades before the civil rights–generated category of Asian American existed, Wong grappled with how to be an Asian American actress.

Throughout her career, Wong demonstrated an astounding ability to survive as a performer through adapting to technological and format changes. She started in black and white silent films, then pioneered silent two-tone technicolor cinema, then thrived in the “talkies” or sound motion pictures. When film work dried up, she successfully sought opportunities in radio, vaudeville, theater, and photography. Then, in the 1950s, she mastered live television. I have no doubt that if she were alive today, she would be an Instagram or Youtube star, sharing makeup and beauty tips with the world.

I situate this work as part of the feminist recuperation of women’s experiences, and, moreover, racial minority women’s responses to gender being unmarked as white. As decades of scholarship have established, this is not compensatory work but analysis that transforms how we conceptualize history. Body politics still have ramifications for people’s lives. What is at stake in this examination of Wong’s career is the very writing of history: who can speak, who can be a subject, and how it can be done. In doing this work, I wish to validate creative and risk-taking scholarly inquiry. Wong’s cultural creations point to an earlier historical moment of possibility. It shows us how she performed the modern despite facing extraordinary racial and gendered obstacles.

Golden nuggets for moving away from a technological culture to an ecological culture

This week in North Philly Notes, William Cohen, author of Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture, writes about Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg, who inspired his book and field of study.

I was a young city and regional planner in the 1970s. It was a turbulent time especially as there was a growing awareness that we are doing some fairly serious harm to our environment. I had heard about a dynamic professor from the University of Pennsylvania who was one of the organizers of America’s first Earth Day. He was scheduled to give a presentation in April 1970 at the University of Delaware and I decided to go and find out what was really going on. Well, Ian McHarg, a landscape architect and regional planner let his audience of over 500 people have it straight and to the point. We are despoiling our environment and if we don’t change our ways we may in fact be threatening our survival. He extolled us that we must embrace ecology in how we plan, design, and build our human settlements. The year before McHarg had published Design with Nature that immediately became a hallmark call for reversing current trends. It was a challenge not just to planners and designers, but to everyone else.

McHarg’s message to design with nature became my professional commitment that steered my professional life for over three decades and has lasted with me to this day. I would later study with McHarg at Penn and that educational experience became the icing on the cake.

Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture_SMThose of us in both the professional and academic worlds that have a curiosity for discovery are continually looking for that little piece of wisdom, brilliance, or revelation that will bring about a new awareness—not just intellectually, but emotionally. We can find these “golden nuggets” almost anywhere as we proceed through life experiences. I discovered one at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland in 2006 when I was part of a team that interviewed a number of forward looking thinkers concerned about the present state of our environment. It was Graham Leicester director of the International Futures Forum who somewhat casually remarked: “We are subject to rapid technological change, new interconnectedness, speed of advance; we are in a world we don’t understand anymore. The old rules no longer seem to apply. The new rules haven’t been discovered. What we need is a Second Enlightenment.” This was more than a discovery, it was a jolt of lightening.

In retrospect I can say that my professional work as an ecological planner discovered a new twist with this golden nugget. Yes, I concluded we do need to embrace a “second enlightenment” that will be a guiding mantra to move us away from a technological culture to an ecological culture. The evolution and development of the machine—from the earliest clock to today’s computer—has for sure given us great advantages to make life easier and more enjoyable. And this strikes at the center of the concern: Has the advance in technological achievement begun to steal away our basic humanity? Are we losing a connection with our natural environment?

These two points became the focus of the voluminous writings of Lewis Mumford, one of the great public intellectuals of the twentieth century. He bemoaned the reality that human aspiration and purpose was becoming overwhelmed by technological progress. Think about it; think about how our cities and small towns have declined and how suburbia has grown exponentially. Think about how we have damaged our cultural resources; how we have witnessed diminishing natural and agricultural areas; how we have to tolerate increasing traffic congestion; and how we have seemingly become addicted to our Smartphones and other electronic devices. If we all stand back for a moment and take an assessment of where we are in the continuum of history can we say we are satisfied with our lives, our living patterns, and our environment?

This overriding question gave me the impetus to write Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture. I firmly thought when I began this enterprise that I could somehow meld historical trends with today’s realities and provide a future direction. It was not difficult to conclude that the work of both Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg gives us a strong guiding light to examine and even project that the achievement of an ecological culture is both evident and a necessity. This transition takes on special significance when we look at our current educational system. How we prepare the next generation of planners and designers will be crucial to our success. By advancing an ecohumanism philosophy, as the premise to planning, designing, and building our human settlements, we can see the light of an ecological culture on a reachable horizon. We just need to get there to preserve our environment and our humanity.

 

 

Celebrating America

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate the Fourth of July with ten of Temple University Press’s “American” titles. These books look at colonial America,  American culture, and the American Dream, reflecting on our country, its past, present, and future.

COLONIAL AMERICA

Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Pastby Thomas A. Foster

Biographers, journalists, and satirists have long used the subject of sex to define the masculine character and political authority of America’s Founding Fathers. Tracing these commentaries on the Revolutionary Era’s major political figures in Sex and the Founding Fathers, Thomas Foster shows how continual attempts to reveal the true character of these men instead exposes much more about Americans and American culture than about the Founders themselves.

The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcoholby Eric Burns

In The Spirits of America, Burns relates that drinking was “the first national pastime,” and shows how it shaped American politics and culture from the earliest colonial days. He details the transformation of alcohol from virtue to vice and back again, how it was thought of as both scourge and medicine. He tells us how “the great American thirst” developed over the centuries, and how reform movements and laws (some of which, Burn s says, were “comic masterpieces of the legislator’s art”) sprang up to combat it. Burns brings back to life such vivid characters as Carrie Nation and other crusaders against drink. He informs us that, in the final analysis, Prohibition, the culmination of the reformers’ quest, had as much to do with politics and economics and geography as it did with spirituous beverage.

Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memoryby Roger C. Aden

In Upon the Ruins of Liberty, Roger Aden offers a compelling account that explores the development of the important historic site of the President’s House installation at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park, and the intersection of contemporary racial politics with history, space, and public memory. Aden constructs this engrossing tale by drawing on archival material and interviews with principal figures in the controversy—including historian Ed Lawler, site activist Michael Coard, and site designer Emanuel Kelly.

AMERICAN CULTURE

“I Hear America Singing”: Folk Music and National Identity by Rachel Clare Donaldson

In America, folk music—from African American spirituals to English ballads and protest songs—renders the imagined community more tangible and comprises a critical component of our diverse national heritage. In “I Hear America Singing,” Rachel Donaldson traces the vibrant history of the twentieth-century folk music revival from its origins in the 1930s through its end in the late 1960s. She investigates the relationship between the revival and concepts of nationalism, showing how key figures in the revival—including Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Moses Asch, and Ralph Rinzler—used songs to influence the ways in which Americans understood the values, the culture, and the people of their own nation.

Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memoryby Mike Wallace

This is a book about why history matters. It shows how popularized historical images and narratives deeply influence Americans’ understanding of their collective past. A leading public historian, Mike Wallace observes that we are a people who think of ourselves as having shed the past but also avid tourists who are on a “heritage binge,” flocking by the thousands to Ellis Island, Colonial Williamsburg, or the Vietnam Memorial. Wallace probes into the trivialization of history that pervades American culture as well as the struggles over public memory that provoke stormy controversy.

Red War on the Family: Sex, Gender, and Americanism in the First Red Scareby Erica J. Ryan

In the 1920s, cultural and political reactions to the Red Scare contributed to a marked shift in the way Americans thought about sexuality, womanhood, manhood, and family life. The Russian Revolution prompted anxious Americans who sensed a threat to social order to position heterosexuality, monogamy, and the family as bulwarks against radicalism.  In her probing and engaging book, Erica Ryan traces the roots of sexual modernism and the history of antiradicalism and antifeminism. Red War on the Family charts the ways Americanism both reinforced and was reinforced by these sexual and gender norms in the decades after World War I.

Framing the Audience: Art and the Politics of Culture in the United States, 1929-1945, by Isaorda Helfgott

Framing the Audience argues that efforts to expand the social basis of art became intertwined with—and helped shape—broader debates about national identity and the future of American political economy. Helfgott chronicles artists’ efforts to influence the conditions of artistic production and display. She highlights the influence of the Federal Art Project, the impact of the Museum of Modern Art as an institutional home for modernism in America and as an organizer of traveling exhibitions, and the efforts by LIFE and Fortune magazines to integrate art education into their visual record of modern life. In doing so, Helfgott makes critical observations about the changing relationship between art and the American public.

THE AMERICAN DREAM

The American Dream in the 21st Century, edited by Sandra L. Hanson and John K. White

The American Dream has long been a dominant theme in U.S. culture, one with enduring significance, but these are difficult times for dreamers. The editors of and contributors to The American Dream in the 21st Century examine the American Dream historically, socially, and economically and consider its intersection with politics, religion, race, gender, and generation. The conclusions presented in this short, readable volume provide both optimism for the faith that most Americans have in the possibility of achieving the American Dream and a realistic assessment of the cracks in the dream. The last presidential election offered hope, but the experts here warn about the need for better programs and policies that could make the dream a reality for a larger number of Americans.

Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt

Has the “American Dream” become an unrealistic utopian fantasy, or have we simply forgotten what we are working for? In his topical book, Free Time, Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt examines the way that progress, once defined as more of the good things in life as well as more free time to enjoy them, has come to be understood only as economic growth and more work, forevermore. Hunnicutt provides an incisive intellectual, cultural, and political history of the original “American Dream” from the colonial days to the present. Taking his cue from Walt Whitman’s “higher progress,” he follows the traces of that dream, cataloging the myriad voices that prepared for and lived in an opening “realm of freedom.” Free Time reminds Americans of the forgotten, best part of the “American Dream”—that more and more of our lives might be lived freely, with an enriching family life, with more time to enjoy nature, friendship, and the adventures of the mind and of the spirit.

Tensions in the American Dream: Rhetoric, Reverie, or Realityby Melanie E. L. Bush and Roderick D. Bush

Could the promise of upward mobility have a dark side? In Tensions in the American Dream, Melanie and Roderick Bush ask, “How does a ‘nation of immigrants’ pledge inclusion yet marginalize so many citizens on the basis of race, class, and gender?” The authors consider the origins and development of the U.S. nation and empire; the founding principles of belonging, nationalism, and exceptionalism; and the lived reality of these principles. Tensions in the American Dream also addresses the relevancy of nation to empire in the context of the historical world capitalist system. The authors ask, “Is the American Dream a reality questioned only by those unwilling or unable to achieve it? What is the ‘good life,’ and how is it particularly ‘American’?”

 

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